Peach cobbler

Our peach tree does us a disservice each summer by tossing its goods to the grass where they quickly rot or fall prey to birds.

I have cursed this tree for years, but my lovely wife collects the survivors, or she climbs a ladder to pluck directly from the branches. She eats some, and she gives the remainder to friends and family.

These are puny little peaches compared to those I recall from my childhood in Georgia, which is called the Peach State with reason.

I know a peach when I see one. These are pretenders.

My maternal grandmother, named Osie, and her maid, named Willie, who was married (more or less) to the yardman, named Cap, often cooked peach cobbler.

Just the other day something marvelous happened. As I was picking up rotten peaches from the grass — if you don’t, they go putrid — a distinct aroma of peach reached up and smacked me. It had never happened here before.

And there I was, back in Georgia, a billion years and a million miles away. The kitchen window was open, and there was the huge table abutting it.

The pack of us — mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, sister and myself — were eating peach cobbler.

It was the big noon meal, and it included lemonade from real lemons. The snap beans would have come from across the dirt road.  The corn from our fields.

The beef or pork would have come from the freezer, a beast grandfather had butchered.

From 1945 to 1951, we all lived in that house in the country, a house built by my great-grandfather in the 1890s and which remained in the family till the 1980s.

There must have been some negatives to those times, but I was too young to notice. I can still taste the snap beans, the corn, the lemonade and the cobbler.

We made our own ice cream too.

The desk clerk

His name was Lenny Slick, and he was night manager and desk clerk at the Marbol Hotel.

Lenny was 38, a dimwitted bachelor.

He was unattractive, tall, skinny, and sometimes he smelled of vegetable oil.

His mother had been a fortune-teller who practiced esoteric arts. It was his mom who had steered Lenny toward phrenology.

Phrenology obsessed Lenny. The shape of people’s heads. Lenny had only the lightest grasp of phrenology, but that didn’t lessen his love of heads.

After pursuing various occupations earlier in life,  it became clear he wasn’t suited for much more than sitting behind a hotel counter and pointing customers thataway, plus having them sign names and pay cold cash.

The Marbol Hotel sat in the seedy side of town. It had seen sweeter days, but nowadays most Marbol doings were marginal, both legally and morally.

The owner, Sol Levowitz, had told Lenny that hookers were verboten.

But Levowitz didn’t pay Lenny very much, and the occasional hooker would enter with a street john.

She would get a room by slipping a little extra into Lenny’s hand while he was examining the slopes of her head for clues. To what, he was unsure, just clues.

Some hookers, however, the stingier ones, sidetracked the Marbol’s ban by offering Lenny a little hootchy-kootchy instead of cash.

This delighted Lenny.

It was the only way he ever saw a woman naked, but that was not the only thing. It gave Lenny a very close look at the hooker’s head, the hills, the ravines.

A hooker freebie meant two things to Lenny. Flesh and phrenology. This sometimes led to misunderstandings with the woman beneath. Here’s why:

Lenny’s face, of course, would be near the hooker’s head, and he could study it carefully. Quite often, the question of phrenology made Lenny forget the other side of the equation, what he was doing farther south, which the hooker considered the principal attraction, the main act.

To the hooker, this was a quickie. But when Lenny became captivated by the subtle ups and downs he saw on her skull, the other ups and downs dragged out. He flipped to auto-pilot, and the flight could become a long one.

New York to London, sometimes Calcutta. The aroma of vegetable oil — far past its due date — would crescendo.

Lenny’s close-up study of the hooker’s head frequently would be brought to a brusk finale when she bellowed: Are you ever going to finish, dammit? Or something of that sort.

The women never appreciated Lenny’s love of esoteric science.

* * * *

(One of a series titled The Marbol Hotel.) 

Living color

I live in a house painted red with a wife shaded brown.

The living room is canary yellow aside from the part that’s painted blue.

The house painted red and the grass, which is green five months and brown for seven, are surrounded by a brick wall painted orange.

My hair is white, and I’m rarely blue. How could one be blue in a house painted red and a wife shaded brown? With black tresses no less.

The sky is blue, however. It’s blue for seven months for sure, and sometimes in the remaining five. If not, it’s gray due to rain, which is what makes the grass green for five months.

The rock sidewalk that curves through summer’s green grass is black. The flowers are yellow and scarlet, for the most part.

The neighbor’s apples that fall over the wall are red.

The butterflies come in many colors, and the hummingbirds shimmer. Our peaches are peach, our oranges are orange, and our pears are green like the damp grass in summertime.

The mountains are green for much of the year and when not, it’s not their fault. It’s lack of rain in Springtime, a season associated with green, but not in these parts, pardner.

Best of all is my wife shaded brown.  Heart-healthy, like chocolate.

The redheaded negro

The previous day, November 12, 1954, had been his 26th birthday and now he was staring at the ceiling in the Marbol Hotel. His name was Billy Lancing.

An old man’s body had been hauled from that same room three days before, but Billy didn’t know that. The graying sheets had been flipped, and air freshener had been sprayed.

Billy was a half-breed, but that term’s misleading because he wasn’t a 50-50 split. He was mostly white, but black genes showed in his full mouth and nose, the twist of his hair — like Malcolm X  who found fame a few years later.

Two redheaded negroes, Billy and Malcolm.

Billy’s mama was an octoroon hooker in San Sebastian, but he didn’t mess with her anymore. He had, as he liked to think of it, gone straight, earned his own way.  He was whale of a pool shark.

A couple years back he had such a fat wad from playing pool that he enrolled in college, but college was not for Billy.  After a semester, he lost interest, plus he married a coed and spawned a child.

A classroom at 8 a.m. couldn’t compete with a pool hall at midnight, so he dropped out and found a job managing a 24-hour bowling alley that included pool tables. That’s where the trouble started.

A slicker shark, a fat man from Los Angeles, appeared one night with two young dim-eyed hoods with broken noses, and put Billy in the poorhouse.

Blame it on ego. Blame it on stupidity. Billy should have known better than to go so far, but he had a reputation to protect.

He played until he was broke, not even one buck in the secret lining of his suit. You wouldn’t believe how that fat man played pool, how the balls adored and followed him. Those slave balls couldn’t say no to the fat man.

As with college before, Billy was fed up with family life, so he used being broke as an excuse to run, and now he was alone in the Marbol Hotel with a fresh wad of money from a fake check he’d cashed at a package store the previous day.

Billy Lancing had never committed a bona fide crime before, and it scared him, that check scam. He had never been in jail, but this initial sin eventually led to his stabbing in San Quentin, killed by a black-headed homosexual negro with a colossal attitude and a throbbing lust.

If only Billy had stuck with the coed and his kid.

Lying on his bed in the Marbol Hotel, of course, he did not know that his life would be short and useless. But right now he wanted a woman.

He’d been dry too long.  He was hungry for skin.

* * * *

He found her in the hotel lobby. She looked so young, but she said she was 18, and Billy wanted to buy that. She was inexpensive, and she loved to talk.

Her name was Kristanabel.

She related a crazy story about killing her parents, that the cops had nabbed her but lacked the hard evidence to nail her, so she was released the previous week in Mintablisko.

Kristanabel told this story as they sprawled on the bed with Chesterfields and marginal gin, and it made Billy nervous. He glanced toward her small sequined purse on the bureau and wondered if it hid something that would scare a pool shark who had just turned 26.

* * * *

There was a pounding. Police! Open the door!  Billy jumped up and pulled on his pants. Kristanabel dove beneath the sheets. Two hard men with plainclothes and steel badges entered.

Billy never learned how they found him at the Marbol Hotel. He was tried and convicted of passing a bad check and soiling the morals of a child.

Billy went to San Quentin and his death while Kristanabel landed in the foster home of Mr. and Mrs. Myron Blade and their two normal children.

Kristanabel saw how Myron looked at her, and she knew it would work to her advantage. She remained on the shy side of 16.

(Note: This is an imaginary chapter, something that might have been but wasn’t, in the wonderful novel by the late Don Carpenter titled  Hard Rain Falling. We will encounter Billy no more. But Kristanabel? Perhaps.)

* * * *

(One of a series titled The Marbol Hotel.) 

You are my splendor

The distance between my town and the state capital is eight Emmylou Harris songs.

And that’s without police or army checkpoints, which always add a few more tunes to your travel time.

The best of a recent trip was My Antonía, part of which goes like this:

— Oh my love. Oh my Antonía. You with the dark eyes and palest of skin. Tonight I’m going from Santa Maria. Wait for me till I’m in your arms once again.

This is country music so, of course, there’s grief and pain down the highway. Antonía waited a spell but died “of a fever.”

— I’ll never see her in this world againYou are my sorrow. You are my splendor. You are my shelter through storm and through strife.

— You are the one I will always remember.  All of the days of my life.

A friend once noted that if you’re in the midst of romantic grief or divorce, all country songs are speaking directly to you.

This effect is magnified if you’re gripping a steering wheel.

* * * *

My Antonía.

The pink rose

She was a tiny bottle blonde from Brooklyn. But that was not where I met her. I met her in San Juan where she was a secretary on a newspaper.

She was a romance. One advantage of multiple marriages is that it frees up time between wives to have romances that you don’t get crucified for. You’re not “cheating” on anyone.

While I lived in a rented room nearby in the beachfront home of a sports writer and his Dominican girlfriend, the Brooklyn blonde lived with her cat in a second-floor apartment where the pounding waves were beyond earshot.

But there was a balcony and Puerto Rican street life. It faced a small restaurant where we often ate chicken and rice (arroz con pollo) and listened to Johnny Nash sing I Can See Clearly Now on the Rockola.

While she was a tiny New Yorker, I was a 225-pound, 6-foot-3-inch, tattooed, black-bearded hulk of a Southern Cracker boy, so we looked a tad goofy holding hands on the sidewalk.

But we didn’t care.

Like many Caribbean romances, it came to an end, but not just then.

A few months later, my job fell through, and I moved back where I came from — New Orleans — and she followed me uninvited with her cat and her mother, which did not bode well, as you might imagine.

Cats and mothers did not fit my lifestyle and, following a few months under the same roof (sans mama) near Bayou St. John, we disintegrated and I was free again, which is how I wanted it at that time.

But whenever I hear Johnny Nash sing I Can See Clearly Now, it catapults me back to San Juan, swaying palms, sidewalk avocados, and the tiny bottle blonde from Brooklyn who favored pink lipstick. Her name was Mary.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary. But she wasn’t. I was the contrary one.

* * * *

Johnny Nash sings that good song.

Water music

It sounded like a small motor, perhaps the sort that powers toy airplanes for pretend pilots. It woke me up at 4 a.m.

Propping myself up on a pillow, fingering the sleep from my ears and focusing my attention sharply, the source of the motor revealed itself.

It was rainwater from the roof, passing through a steel drainpipe installed just last dry December, falling onto a banana leaf.

It was water music, so I went back to sleep.

Morphine at the Marbol

The morphine he got from the defrocked doctor helped, but it was a stopgap measure because he was dying on a bed in the Marbol Hotel on the sad side of the city.

He’d been there three weeks, and nobody was visiting. Just the old bellman who took pity and was the mule who funneled the morphine from the doctor. It lessened the pain.

The unlicensed doctor had come just once to confirm what was clear, that these were the final days. He couldn’t afford a hospital. He couldn’t afford a hospice. Just the Marbol.

Many years ago when both he and the Marbol were young, he had often stayed there. He had been a businessman, a very successful one, and the Marbol was a chichi hotel in those times.

He had a charming wife named Victoria and two children, a boy and a girl, and everyone called them well-behaved. He bought a new Buick every two years, and his suits were made in Barcelona.

He and Victoria and the children lived in a split-level in another city. There was a pool out back, lush grass and a barbecue grill. Everything was beautiful.

But then he met Naomi.

He was at the top of his game, but Naomi was like an oil spill that he stepped in and slipped, heels over head. Everything collapsed, and he slid rapidly down and with much regret — at the end.

There were scenes with Victoria, gin, tonic, screaming, tears and lunacy.

First, he lost Victoria and the children, then the split-level with the pool and the barbecue. The Buick. His work. When the money dried up, so did Naomi.

A golddigger, he discovered too late.

That was so long ago. He never recovered and now, at age 76, he was supine in a Marbol room that smelled of grime and bleach and needed a good sweep.

Every night, feeling the morphine, he thought of Naomi, her black hair, her movie-star thighs, her wasp waist, her lips and sparkling eyes. She would be decrepit, but he would die to see her.

But he died without seeing her — or anyone.

Just the old bellman who called the coroner.

* * * *

(One of a series titled The Marbol Hotel.)

The bus ride

Jahn looked at the cold landscape through the bus window. It will be snowing soon, he thought, in these mountains, the high Nevatumblas.

He had been riding two days from Lisomon where he had left her — or abandoned her, as he saw it. By necessity, she pleaded. It had to be done to survive, she cried. Because of Lechke.

Lechke was a large, hard man with dirt beneath his nails, both real and symbolic. He knew the sheriff, so he thought he was above the law — and divine justice too though he didn’t know God.

He had taken a shine to her, and no one should say no to Lechke. The fact that Jahn had loved her so long meant nothing to Lechke who wanted her now, and that settled it in his primitive mind.

Jahn glanced at the young girl beside him. Fleeting snow brushed the bus window as sundown drew near. Light was fading. Trees flashed by.

The girl boarded the bus that morning at the town called Fiscada. She was 15 years old, she said. Small for her age, brown-haired and plain.

Looking back out the window, he remembered what his love said. This will not be forever, but it will be months. Not months but years, Jahn thought.

It will be like death, but he would still breathe, place one step ahead of the next, patient. He was headed to Mintablisko. He would be alone.

He turned toward the girl again and wondered. Could it be true?

She looked so innocent.

* * * *

I killed my mom and dad last night. Why? Because they always hurt me.

I waited till they fell asleep and then I got Daddy’s pistol from the dining room drawer. I wanted to shoot them both between the eyes like you see in the movies, just like that.

I walked up to the bed and put the barrel near Daddy’s face and pulled the trigger, right between his eyes. The noise surprised me, and the pistol kicked.

Mommy woke up and screamed. I stepped back, aimed at her chest and pulled the trigger two more times.

Then I went downstairs and made two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and I put milk in a thermos, and I walked six blocks in the dark to the bus station.

* * * *

Jahn wondered. Is she telling the truth? She said her name was Kristanabel. He looked again out the bus window and saw ice sticking to the glass.

He felt gloomy and lonely. Kristanabel was wearing a short pleated skirt and sandals with no socks in this cold weather.

Three hours later the bus pulled into the station at Mintablisko. Police were waiting at the door, waiting for Kristanabel. No one was waiting for him.

Outside, he picked up his bag and shivered.

* * * *

(First in a series titled The Marbol Hotel.)

Fact, Fiction and Opinion Stirred in an Odd Pot

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